I’ve been playing with the idea of the Mississippi as a metaphor for a species’ life when it comes to understanding neoteny and acceleration.  It’s not a perfect fit, but it is an interesting one.

Imagine the Mississippi as representing changes in a species over time.  At the source, Itasca in Minnesota, clear water emerges from beneath the earth in a pristine environment featuring wildlife and virgin forest.  At first a trickle, the stream picks up speed and breadth, finally leaving the protected environment of the park.

The river grows wider as it meanders south.  Houses and, later, towns appear beside it.  Soon, industry emerges, and before too long, boats carrying the product of industry share river space with tourists and local boaters.

At the other end of the river, New Orleans, the river is girdled by cities on both sides, massive commercial and industrial activity and almost a million people.  Cities like Baton Rouge offer single corporate sites square miles in size, using the Mississippi as an opportunity for profit.

Driving down and up the Mississippi with my son, I am sensitive to the ways he is different and the same as I, as I am similar yet vary from my father.  We are not just part of a family line, we are a sequence in the unfolding of a species.  There are ways that our participation in a species transformation transcends our lives as individuals.  I feel aware of how deeply I have been influenced by my dad, in ways not unlike how I have influenced my son.  It sometimes feels to me that the thing we three represent, a species lineage, is far more powerful than the individual identity that we usually take so seriously.

A lineage has a life that transcends individuality.  Our commitment to time as a thing that has a past, present and future obfuscates the reality of lineage.  Remove time, and we that are related become the same.

Imagine Minnesota’s Mississippi River wildlife and protected trees reaching their way down the river, prolonging “infant” neotenic features to appear farther south with time.  If the Mississippi represents a species over time, a lineage of individuals, consider how the river would look and behave if nonhuman nature was to cascade its way down the river over time as factories closed, houses were abandoned and river boats retreated south.

In the way that human progenitor chimpanzee-like infant features prolonged and appeared in descendant adults over millions of years, the Mississippi River can reveal river source features in the way the river looks downstream.  After a long period of time, New Orleans becomes a pristine estuary with humans only visiting to observe nature.  The whole rest of the river has become a boat-free zone with trees and prairies hugging a thousand-mile bank.

This would be river as metaphor for how humans evolved.  We can go the other direction.  Instead of prolonging infant features into adults over time, bridging virgin forests to estuary endings, we could go backward and accelerate adult or estuary features so that they move north up the river, against the flow.  Larger and larger cities would appear farther and farther north.  The huge petroleum processing plants of Louisiana would expand into Arkansas, Missouri and, last, Minnesota.  Finally, factories would ring the source of the Mississippi as the forest would be removed.

Imagine the Mississippi as a species.  The evolution of features would radically differ depending upon the direction of feature evolution.  Though the flow of the river would always follow the flow of time, the river’s traits would reflect the direction of this trait trajectory.  The character of the source would flow downriver, or the features of the estuary would creep north.

This is an imperfect metaphor.  As humans have exhibited neoteny, they have revealed more sophisticated society until culture appeared and things went crazy.  If the accoutrements of culture are created by neoteny, then factories and fir trees are not opposites.

Nevertheless, species unfold or flow through time.  Grandfather, son and grandson can be alive at one time.  Humans are submerged in an experience characterized by identification with a body that has a limited awareness span.  Using the Mississippi as a metaphor for species allows an identification with evolution over time and an understanding of a species as a transforming entity with ongoing beginnings, middles and ends.

Beginnings and ends of species are the doorways to understanding directions that species evolve.

Sources and estuaries of rivers provide insight into how rivers can transform.

Rivers, sons and fathers can provide insight into species evolution.  The trick is to take the emphasis off of individuals and view evolution as an outcome of a longer time span, a lingering now.  Adjusting time as a variable when exploring evolution provides leverage as we seek to understand how species change.

Evolution flows.


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